“Now which way do we go?”
“Pardon me, this way is a very nice way.”
“Who said that?”
“It’s pleasant down that way, too.”
“That’s funny. Wasn’t he pointing the other way?”
“Of course, some people do go both ways.”
– The Wizard of OZ (1939), screenplay by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf
It’s a common complaint amongst older generations about how the young’uns these days have no sense of direction; that their overabundance of choice has made them unable to make clear decisions; that having everything handed to them has made them all entitled babies who don’t know the value of real work. These older generations view each successive one, particularly Millennials, as nothing more than wannabe Lost Boys of Neverland who want to avoid adulthood (ie. responsibility) the way most people avoid malaria.
Like all stereotypes, I know that this one isn’t… entirely true. Having said that, this stereotype (like all others) has people who will gladly embody all of its worst characteristics. (Lena Dunham has made an entire career out of personifying the entitled White Millennial.) Why anyone would openly embrace the idea of being an indecisive layabout, I’m sure I don’t know, but those folks do exist.
I’d love to tell you that Annie Baker’s John is a meditation on that sort of generation gap. But I can’t tell you that. Instead, she embraces the stereotype.
In a cozy little bed ‘n breakfast in Gettysburg, PA, Millennial couple Eli and Jenny have come to get away from the hectic New York life for the weekend. As Eli is a Civil War buff, he naturally chose one of the most important locations of both the war and the United States. The place is run by septuagenarian Mertis (nicknamed “Kitty”) and her unseen husband George.
Of course, all is not well with our players. The youngsters aren’t just escaping the city life, but also the damage left behind from a major turning point in their relationship. Between Jenny’s menstrual cycle, strange occurrences in the house, and frequent visits from Kitty’s friend Genevieve, the couple’s relationship may end up more damaged than it was when they first arrived.
Annie Baker couldn’t decide what play she wanted to write, so she tried to write them all. Although the fixed setting of John makes it a chamber play, the tone swings wildly back-and-forth from bad relationship comedy to bad relationship drama to actually-pretty-decent haunted house play. Since Baker can’t decide what story she wants to tell, several threads go unresolved and a great deal of time feels wasted. After three hours (yes, really) of watching the play tread water, we’re not even given the courtesy of an ending. What I mean is the play doesn’t bother to bring the story, what little there is, to any logical conclusion. Instead, it just stops. It’s akin to a tour guide telling customers all the possible stops they could make, never taking them there, then just telling them all to go home.
The cast try their best with what they’ve been given. Stacy Yen is natural as Jenny, but the same cannot be said for Joe Paulik as Eli. Every line delivery of his mechanical and lacking energy. Given that a crucial point in the play requires him to yell, his doing so in a subdued fashion comes off more as the actor afraid to let loose moreso than the character. Georgia Engel’s Kitty is entertaining, even though Baker has clearly written her as nothing more than an “Aunt Bea” caricature. Ann McDonough’s Genevieve is frustrating for reasons that have nothing to do with the actress playing the role. Had the play committed to the haunted house story lurking at its edges, Genevieve would have been the character you just have to keep an eye on. Here, her presence is wasted.
And that’s really John in a nutshell: it’s an exercise wasting a valuable opportunity. Baker could have taken the classic theatre format of the chamber play and used it to make an intriguing modern story. Instead, she creates the theatrical genre equivalent to a pack of mini cereal boxes. Sure, eating them all will fill you up, but you won’t be satisfied when it’s over.
John runs until the 3rd of April at the ACT.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.